As the adage goes, you get what you pay for.
Since the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013 where 1,134 garment workers were killed, consumers are increasingly demanding transparency and information from retailers, designers and brands about where/how and who made their clothes. Consumers are also factoring in the environmental impact and ethical credentials when making a purchase. However, e-commerce personalisation service, Nosto, which surveyed 2000 consumers in the UK and US about their attitudes to sustainable fashion found more than 50 per cent said they want more brands to act sustainably. Yet only one-third said they were prepared to pay more to do so.
So, what if the price of sustainable and ethical fashion could be justified by the quality and style, would consumers buy it? And why the high price tag? And is the high cost of sustainable and ethical fashion avoidable?
WHY IS ETHICAL AND SUSTAINABLE CLOTHING SO EXPENSIVE?
Hate to answer a question with a question, but who says sustainable and ethical fashion is expensive? Well, comparatively the current ‘fast fashion’ cycle does. Kmart which sells clothing that is cheaper than a cup of coffee. Boohoo, the online retailer which sells hundreds of styles for $20. Nasty Gal, Zara, H&M and don’t get us started on Missguided (1 pound bikini ’empowering women’, paaaleeeasssse).
These big retailers have played a significant role in how consumers look at and value fashion and clothing. For years they have marketed cheap, low-quality, unsustainable product at consumers without consequence.
For designers and brands that are producing responsibly, the challenge is to change consumer’s minds, behaviour and spending. Educating consumers about the reasons for higher costs when producing environmentally conscious and ethical clothing is essential to this.
ORGANIC DOES MATTER
The fashion industry is one of the most harmful industries to the environment and planet. But it’s fashion’s most widely used material, cotton, that has a devastating impact on not only the environment but the health of the world’s people. The pesticides used to maintain strong growth and bumper harvests also contribute to health disorders, neurological and vision disorders and cancer. According to the Organic Consumer’s Organisation ‘in India, 91% of male cotton workers exposed to pesticides eight hours or more per day experienced some type of health disorder including chromosomal aberrations, cell death and cell cycle delay’.
For communities situated around these farms, ‘the ongoing use of pesticides on cotton contaminates groundwater, surface water and pollutes their drinking water. Fish, birds and other wildlife are also affected by the movement of these chemicals through the ecosystem.’ The World Health Organisation estimates that at least three million people are poisoned by pesticides every year and 20-40,000 more are killed.
Sustainable and ethical brands opt for organic cotton in products and it’s not hard to reason with why. However, farming organic cotton has increased costs including labour, water irrigation and land. Due to the lack of yield that organic cotton farms produce in comparison to a non-organic farm, more land is needed to produce the same amount. Sustainable water irrigation is vital especially with the increased land needed. No pesticides, insecticides or chemical loaded fertilisers. This all means more labour. This all contributes to the increased cost of the end product.
A good product, that is better for the world’s people and our environment and planet. But you would rather the alternative – really?
THE PRICE OF FAIR WAGES
Let’s go back to the $5 Kmart t-shirt and the Missguided bikini. How much do you think the person that made that t-shirt or bikini got paid? How about the cotton farmer who put their health on the line by spraying pesticides on the crop for 8 hours a day, how much did they get paid?
The world of ‘fast fashion’ that is embedded in western culture has devastating consequences for the people that work in the supply chain.
According to the Organic Consumers Organisation, ‘since it’s now considered “too expensive” to pay a living wage and protect the environment, US, European, and Japanese textile and clothing manufacturers, have, for the most part, closed down production and moved to “outsource” their production overseas, preferably in the lowest-wage countries like Vietnam, China, India and Bangladesh.’
Worse still, not only are many clothing brands and manufacturers taking their production to developing countries, but they are also seeking the most vulnerable people within these countries to exploit- women and children. Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2018 states that 80% of the 75 million people who work in the fashion and textiles industry are women. Since the fatal collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, details emerged and continue to emerge of the atrocious working conditions, unsafe factories, long working hours, underpaid employees and child labour that occurs. They also have no rights, no health or work safety insurance, and more often than not their rights to free speech and a worker’s trade union are repressed.
Consumer behaviour and demand for ‘fast fashion’ is what drives cheap labour and exploitation of garment workers. However, by empowering consumers through education and awareness, consumer behaviour can change the industry.
Consumers should buy from transparent and honest brands as well as retailers that support, fairly treat and pay people in their supply chain. More expensive? Yes. But you have just read the alternative.
NEW INNOVATION, TECHNOLOGY AND SCIENCE IN FASHION
The environmental impact of resource-intensive natural fibres like cotton and synthetic fibres including polyester, nylon and is extensive and unsustainable. However, a new wave of disruptors and innovators have brought game-changing new innovations and technologies to the table, and it’s already making an impact.
Many brands are already implementing circularity business models that use innovative solutions and science to maintain the lifecycle of product. Consider the Ukranian brand Ksenia Schnaider. Founders and designers, Ksenia and Anton Schnaider have been advocates of sustainable fashion ever since it launched in 2011. Combining organic materials with reworked materials, the brand finds ways to use the ‘old’ to make ‘new’.
US label SVILU also incorporates circularity in their supply chain. The label works with non-virgin materials including fabrics that are biodegradable, made from recycled fibres, or from dead stock. SVILU also uses Cupro – a regenerated cellulosic material made from the fine, silky fibre surrounding the cotton seed. A by-product of cotton production, which is usually discarded after cotton buds have been ginned (the process that separates cotton fibres from their seeds). Using a closed loop process, the fibres are then dissolved in a cuprammonium solution and converted to Cupro. Cupro drapes like silk, it has similar properties to cotton- it is hypoallergenic, breathable, regulates temperature, and is biodegradable.
Fabric innovation is only moments away from saving the planet, with cutting edge tech and science banding together to create breakthrough product.
PrimaLoft, a global leader in innovative fabric and textile solutions, has developed the first 100-percent recycled, biodegradable synthetic fibre for fabric use – PrimaLoft Bio. According to PrimaLoft, PrimaLoft Bio is produced as both insulation and textile which will, when exposed to the microbes in landfills or the ocean, biodegrade rapidly into naturally occurring components including water, methane, carbon dioxide, and biomass.
But the development of such product comes at a high cost. In fact, the main barrier of product to market is the end cost to consumers.
Minimalist clothing brand Everlane have developed a line of clothing that utilises fabric made from recycled plastic bottles. However, Head of Apparel at Everlane Kimberley Smith says it costs 10 to 15 percent more to make clothes with recycled water bottles than to use synthetic fabrics. The company is banking on the fact that people will pay more to buy sustainably, and that as more brands incorporate recycled plastic into their designs, it will eventually cost less to turn that plastic into usable thread.
One more thing: As long as there is cheap clothing, ethical and sustainable fashion will always be considered as ‘too expensive’. But consider this. For every dollar you spend on an ethical piece of clothing, you are telling the world that you value the world we live in, the people, the environment and the future of our planet. Surely, it’s not a high price, just the ‘right’ price.